Tweets of the living dead: Social media spreads awareness during disasters

If you’re ready for a zombie apocalypse, then you’re ready for any emergency.

The Centers for Disease Control made this bold statement (seriously) in May 2011. To help Americans ready themselves for a zombie infestation, it launched the “Preparedness 101: Zombie apocalypse,” social media campaign.

The agency provided advice on the importance of creating emergency kits, evacuation plans and emergency contact lists prior to a zombie invasion (or real disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes or disease outbreaks) and disseminated the information via its Public Health Matters blog, Facebook page and Twitter feed.

Wacky, yes, but also extremely effective. In three days, the zombie preparedness warning had over 30,000 views. Over 10 days, there were triple the amount of visitors than a usual preparedness warning.

It’s estimated the zombie preparedness warning reached over a million people. It was such a success that last month, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius selected the project as one of three “Secretary’s Picks” in the HHSinnovates program.

Although zombies aren’t real (we hope), earthquakes, avian flu strains and cholera are. The CDC’s experiment shows how powerful social media tools can be in disaster preparedness, emergency response and public health outreach.

After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, social media and text messaging were used to raise money for relief efforts. But when a cholera outbreak beset the country, social media wasn’t just responding to the situation, it was predicting it.  A study in a 2012 issue of the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, found social media reports of cholera were highly accurate and available two weeks before data from official sources. The authors wrote that since this type of “informal data” is available in real-time, it could lead to more timely estimates of epidemic severity.

The American Red Cross has already recognized the value of social media when coordinating relief efforts. In March, the agency announced it had teamed-up with Dell to establish a new Digital Operations Center. The Red Cross says the center is the first social media-based operation focusing on humanitarian relief.  And since relief efforts can’t be successful without volunteers, it also launched a Digital Volunteer program. Volunteers will be trained to provide information to the public, to respond to questions, and to collect and substantiate data on online trends and relay it to the Digital Operations Center. This will allow the Red Cross to deploy resources and meet the public’s needs in a more timely, efficient and targeted way.

Who better to know the public’s needs during disaster than the public itself? In February, HHS’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response announced its winners of the Facebook Lifeline Application Challenge. The contest asked software developers to design Facebook apps to improve the establishment of social connections prior to an emergency.

The three winning apps let users create “lifelines” (Facebook friends who would check on them in an emergency, supply them with shelter, food, and provide the person’s social network with updates). The first place app also had a feature I find very important–a news feed and links to credible information sources. Social media can be effective during a disaster, but it also has the potential to create hysteria and spread misinformation.

Though not a disaster, in 2009 social media reported the death of actor Jeff Goldblum. The information was false, and Goldblum was alive and well and even made an appearance on the Colbert Report to dispel rumors of this death. As the creators of the winning app recognized, if social media is to be useful during disasters, credible information must be shared.

Some of the benefits, challenges, and ways to use SM during disasters and emergencies are highlighted in this interesting graphic on Mashable. Though it probably needs to be updated to include zombies (click image for full-screen view).

As more government and national agencies and citizens embrace, SM for disaster and emergency preparedness and response, expect the types and ways we use these tools to grow and evolve in the future.

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Jennifer Thew, RN, MSJ

Jennifer Thew, RN, MSJ, is a registered nurse and journalist who has covered healthcare issues and how they relate to the nursing profession. She began her nursing career as a neuroscience nurse at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and then transitioned to journalism after receiving a degree from Roosevelt University in Chicago. She has edited and written numerous articles on a wide range of nursing and healthcare topics like Accountable Care Organizations, evidence-based practice and telehealth.

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